Manipur smoulders, Modi looks the other way

Sisters Lhing and Nemzahat Nemnei were in an ambulance with their family, en route to a hospital in India’s northeastern state of Manipur, when they were attacked by an angry mob.

The vehicle was carrying the body of the sisters’ deceased uncle as the mob pelted it with stones, broke its windows and beat the driver to death.

‘My mother was hit on the head with a stone and was injured,’ said Lhing, whose family belongs to the Kuki tribe – a mainly Christian group living in the hill region of Manipur. ‘I was pulled out of the ambulance and the mob started beating me. Amid the chaos we were begging them to leave us as the dead body of our uncle was still inside the ambulance.’

Nemzahat managed to escape and hide in a public washroom while her husband was dragged away by the mob. ‘He was beaten to death,’ she said quietly, recounting the terrible events from a camp for displaced persons near the town of Churachandpur.

Nemzahat hid in the dirty washroom all night and in the morning walked on foot to the relief camp. Her sister, aunt and mother were rescued and taken to a different relief camp set up by the Indian army. A few days later, the sisters re-connected over the phone.

Nemzahat’s husband is one of more than 200 people who have been killed since the eruption of ethnic violence in Manipur last May between the Kuki-Zo and the majority Meitei community. Now Nemzahat and her family are among the more than 65,000 displaced people who have lost loved ones, homes and businesses as hope wanes for a peaceful solution.

 

The roots of the violence

On 3 May 2023, news spread that a rally held by the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur had turned violent. The Students Union opposed the High Court of Manipur’s recommendation to grant the protected ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) status to the Meiteis – a predominantly Hindu community, though there are some Muslims and Christians – that makes up 51 per cent of the state’s population.

The Meiteis mostly reside in the Imphal Valley region – the capital of Manipur – and hold most positions of power within the government, police and civil service. Meiteis are not allowed to purchase land in Manipur’s hill districts which ring the Imphal Valley. This is where the Kukis live alongside other tribal communities, collectively known as Kuki-Zo. The Kuki-Zo make up 14 per cent of Manipur’s population and have held ST status for years.  

A border area dividing Meitei and Kuki-Zo village in Churachandpur District. The red buildings, which used to be houses, are now Indian Army quarters. Credit: Nikita Jain
A border area dividing Meitei and Kuki-Zo village in Churachandpur District. The red buildings, which used to be houses, are now Indian Army quarters. Photo: Nikita Jain

In the months leading up to the High Court decision, the Manipur state government began cracking down on an influx of migrants and refugees fleeing violence in neighbouring Myanmar. The government and valley-based civil society organizations then tried to portray the Kuki-Zo tribes as ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘not Indigenous’, putting their claims to their traditional land under scrutiny in an attempt to confer ST status upon the Meiteis. 

The Kuki-Zo leaders fear that granting Meiteis ST status would allow them to encroach on the forest lands in the hills where the Kuki-Zo have lived for centuries.

Struggle for survival

Before the violence erupted Kuki-Zo and Meitei communities lived peacefully, albeit warily, alongside each other.

‘Before, I was the only Kuki-Zo living amid the Meitei community and never faced any trouble. We lived together and, despite differences, we were like family,’ said Mangboy Mate, who is a member of the Zomis – another minority tribe residing in the hill region of Manipur.

Mate ran a construction business in Imphal with a Meitei partner before the  conflict began. ‘I had a business but it is all gone because it was burnt by a mob,’ he said.

Mate says he used to take government contracts for various construction jobs. Now, those opportunities have all but dried up.

‘My payments are still stuck. There is no response from the government and I do not expect the money to reach me even if payment is released. I am surviving on the few savings I had, which are disappearing day by day,’ he said.

Remains of Kuki-zo and Meitei houses are still visible at the Buffer Zone. Photo: Nikita Jain
The charred remains of Kuki-Zo and Meitei houses are still visible at the buffer zones established between the hills and the valley. Photo: Nikita Jain

 

The Kuki-Zo leaders fear that granting Meiteis Special Tribal status would allow them to encroach on the forest lands in the hills where the Kuki-Zo have lived for centuries.

Manipur, once a major tourism hot spot, saw the number of annual visitors drop from 160,000 to just under 20,000 from April to November last year. The state’s exports of handwoven textiles, medicinal plants and food products decreased by over 80 per cent as a result of the ongoing violence, according to the North East Federation on International Trade.

Nemzahat Nemnei with her children in a relief camp near Churachandpur, Manipur.
Nemzahat Nemnei with her children in a relief camp near Churachandpur, Manipur. Photo: Nikita Jain

Thirty-five year old Nemzahat is among those bearing the brunt of the economic losses in Manipur. A housewife and mother of six, her husband worked as a labourer and was the sole earner of the family before he was killed. With no formal education or financial support, and now living in a camp, she is struggling to make ends meet. 

‘I am trying to find small labour jobs here and there, but it is difficult,’ she said.

With no place to call home and no way of going back to their villages, people like Nemzahat and Mate are stuck in overcrowded and unsanitary relief camps where they face an uncertain future.

Resentment in the relief camps

In the town of Churachandpur, known locally as Lamkathe relief camps are mostly converted community halls, schools and under-construction buildings that are now housing thousands of people. Women are forced to bathe in the open due to a lack of washrooms and people are being exposed to the elements.

The mass displacement of people across Manipur has fuelled resentment on both sides of the conflict. Among the 65,000 people displaced are 24,000 Meiteis, some of whom blame the Kuki-Zo for the violence.

‘We saw the pictures of how the Meitei houses were demolished by the Kuki, leaving nothing but rubble. Now, these people have nowhere to go,’ said Priya Laishram, a Meitei resident in Imphal.

Meanwhile, most Kuki-Zo blame the sitting chief minister N. Biren Singh, who is a Meitei, for being complicit in the crimes by pushing an anti-tribal agenda.

The Kuki-Zo community has alleged discrimination on the basis of ethnicity from the hardline Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules both at both the state and national level.

Khamsangh Lian, general secretary of Khangthah Zuun Pawl (KZP), a student body in Churachandpur said that the state government has helped to enable attacks on the Kuki-Zo community by stoking hate and spreading fear.

‘We do not expect anything from the Biren Singh government who allowed the violence to take place,’ he said. ‘His government spread the propaganda that we are illegal immigrants and poppy cultivators. We want peace but in Imphal power has come to those who carry arms and ammunition and threaten our existence – all with the support of the current government.’

Separation as solution?

Amid the escalating violence, some are calling for a separate administration for the Kuki-Zo.

‘The situation is not getting any better, so we need a separate administration,’ said Mang Hoakip, one of the leaders of the Kuki Student Organization in Churachandpur. ‘We are demographically divided, now we just need it on paper. This is our land, our home and we are also as much Indians as everybody else.’

Posters like this whicih read 'This Part of India is a Tribal Land' are all over Lamka town in Churachandpur District, Manipur.
Posters like this can be found all over Lamka town in Churachandpur District, Manipur.

 

'This is our land, our home and we are also as much Indians as everybody else.'

Meanwhile, buffer zones have been established between the hills and the valley. As a result, the Kuki-Zo have been cut off from trade, businesses, hospitals, education and the only airport, which is located in the valley. Over 40,000 Indian armed forces personnel are now present in the state, but firing continues along the periphery of the valley. Radical Meitei mobs have looted more than 4,300 weapons from police armouries.

Despite the escalating violence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to portray a sense of normalcy in Manipur, mainly by ignoring the situation. He was forced to break his silence in July when a graphic video showing two Kuki women being stripped naked and groped by a mob of men went viral and sparked outrage across India.

‘I want to assure my countrymen that no culprit will be spared. What happened to the daughters of Manipur can never be forgiven,’ Modi said in an address, while failing to acknowledge the ongoing conflict.

National elections are on the horizon and it suits the central government to play down the continuing crisis in Manipur and look the other way. Amid government silence and inaction, activists say that dialogue between both sides is the only way to achieve a peaceful solution.

‘Till the time the opposite community does not empathize with the other, any solution is far-fetched,’ said an Imphal-based Meitei activist, who requested anonymity due to security concerns. ‘I think it is important to make the sufferings of both sides the basis of one’s activism – only then is some kind of peace-building and reconciliation possible. Unfortunately, we are now turning a complete blind eye to the other side’s suffering.’